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Give and Take: An Interview with Adam Grant

Bringing a fascinating new perspective to personal branding and the contribution of individuals, too, is Adam Grant. Grant is the youngest full professor at the Wharton School and has been recognized as Wharton’s single-highest-rated teacher, and one of Malcolm Gladwell’s favorite social science writers. Before taking up a career in academia, Grant was the advertising director at Let’s Go Publications, an All-American springboard diver, and a professional magician.

In his best-selling book Give and Take, he examines how being generous with our time and expertise impacts on our personal success. Grant identifies three groups of people – givers, takers, and matchers. Givers are inclined to give their favors generously, while matchers look for a quid pro quo. Takers, on the other hand, are in it for themselves and only help others if there is something more in it for themselves. Interestingly, his research indicates that the most successful people are often givers – but givers also run the risk of being doormats for others.

Grant’s studies have been highlighted in a number of other bestselling books, including Quiet by Susan Cain, Drive and To Sell is Human by Dan Pink, and David and Goliath by Gladwell. He talked with Des Dearlove.

How did you get interested in the subject of give and take?
I’ve always been interested in what makes some people more successful than others, and when I started doing research on that there were three categories that came up consistently — hard work, talent and luck. I was struck by the fact that those were all individual factors, but we were all working in a connected world. As I dug more into that question, it was really interesting to see that there were so many people who said I really care about giving back, but I’m going to amass as much success and influence and wealth as I can first, and then I’ll start trying to help others.

I thought that was backwards.

And you found that people who give back are more successful? So good guys can finish first which is a life affirming discovery.
Yes it is, although I always want to convey that enthusiasm with a bit of caution, because there are about as many givers who sink to the bottom. But yes, it’s pretty exciting that people who put others first most of the time can actually end up finishing first themselves.

So, how did you go about researching it?
The research comes in lots of different flavors. Some of the most compelling and rigorous studies are the ones that actually ask people to rate each other, and gather 360 feedback anonymously on whether they tend to give more than they get, trade fairly evenly or receive more favors than they contribute to others. When you do that you can track, over time, what happens to various objectives, performance metrics as a function of that balance between giving and taking. So you can look at everything from engineering productivity to sales revenue, to even grades in medical school.

What sorts of small favor are we talking about? Somebody making an introduction, not necessarily expecting anything in return?
Introductions can be acts of giving.

Other big categories would be knowledge sharing, mentoring, helping, providing feedback, and teaching skills. Sometimes, it’s as simple as showing up early or staying a bit late to support your colleagues.

And, when you looked at people’s profiles, you found that there were three distinct types, the givers, the takers and the matchers. Can you say just a little bit about each of those?
These styles of interaction turn out to be universal, as far as we can tell, across industries and cultures. The people who operate primarily as takers are always trying to get as much as possible from others. They never want to give anything back unless they have to.

A fairly typical taker would be somebody who ends up claiming all of the interesting, visible, important projects, leaving the grunt work for everyone else, and still manage to walk away with the lion’s share of the credit.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have these people that I call givers, and I’ve been really working to redefine giving as not just about philanthropy or volunteering, but as you said, these everyday acts of helping others with no strings attached.

The givers are the people who will volunteer to provide help, make introductions, share knowledge, be mentors, without asking for anything in return from the people that they help.

And then, in the middle we have most of us – matchers. In the majority of our interactions, most people operate like matchers, trying to keep an even balance of give and take, quid pro quo. If I were a matcher, and I were to do you a favor, I would expect an equal one back, and if you did me a favor, I might feel like I was in debt until I had settled the score.

If most of us are in the middle, then there are more matchers than the others? How does it breakdown between the three groups?
It will vary from one organization, industry and culture to another. But, across the board, the data that have been gathered suggest that on average about 55 to 60 percent of the population are matchers, and the remainder are a pretty even mix of givers and takers.

And if we’re givers in one part of our lives are we predisposed to be givers in all areas? Or might we be givers at work, and takers in another scenario?
People do fluctuate quite a bit. The most common pattern is to be a giver at home and a matcher at work.

If you were to ask people who were parents, for example, think of the last time that your kid asked for a ride to school or football practice, not many parents would say “What have you done for me lately?” to their children. With families and friends, people like to help and rarely keep score.

But in the workplace, a lot of people worry that other people are takers, and so they say it’s a dog eat dog competitive place: if I don’t put myself first nobody else will.

So are there rules of thumb for spotting the three types? Are there dead giveaways in these situations or is it just a case of figuring out after a few interactions where somebody is?
Most people think that they’re very good at recognizing who is a giver and who is a taker. Unfortunately, the evidence shows that until you know someone well, most people do no better than random chance. One of the biggest reasons we get fooled is a personality trait called agreeableness.

Agreeable people tend to be warm and friendly and nice, and welcoming and polite, whereas more disagreeable people are likely to be critical, sceptical, and challenging with others. Most of us associate these personality traits with giving and taking: if you’re a nice guy — if you’re agreeable — I will assume that you’re a giver, and if you’re a little bit more tough and gruff in your interaction, I might assume that you’re a taker.

Yet when you look at the data, the correlation between agreeable-disagreeable and giving-taking, is basically zero. Agreeable and disagreeableness is about your outer veneer, whereas giving and taking is about your inner motives, your intentions.

Agreeableness is what we sometimes call charm?
Exactly. Of course, there are agreeable givers and disagreeable takers, but we forget that there are disagreeable givers, who are the most undervalued people in an organization. These are the people who are not always pleasant to interact with; they often get described as prickly or overly harsh in their judgements. But they have other people’s best interests at heart. They’re often the ones who are willing to blow the whistle, ask the tough questions, play devil’s advocate, in the service of organizational goals, even though they might be not that easy to deal with on an everyday basis.

The people we have to watch out for are the agreeable takers who I call the fakers. They’re nice to your face but perfectly willing to stab you in the back.

As individuals, do we select a strategy — do we decide ourselves? I’m going to be a taker, or I’m going to be a giver, or are we predisposed to one or the other?
It turns out to be a little bit of both. There is such a thing as being good-natured. There are some people who are either born or raised to feel a strong sense of empathy, or duty or social responsibility, and others who obviously have a different DNA or upbringing. But the nice thing is that these are choices we make in every interaction we have with another person. So even if your default is to be a taker, you could walk into your next interaction and decide, you know what — this time I’m going to propose an even trade, or I’ll even offer something without asking for something back.

And, there are plenty of people who make deliberate and intentional choices to shift the level of trust they have depending on who they are dealing with, and how independent they are. So it is something that goes beyond your personality.

That’s good news, there’s hope for all of us. So if we were going to adopt a strategy, how do we ensure that we’re the ones that rise to the top rather than the ones that just end up being the doormat?
That’s a great question. I think it comes down to being thoughtful in three ways: about who, how and when you give. The givers who get themselves in trouble are the ones who are constantly helping takers. You can waste a lot of your time and energy helping people who are very selfish. It is easy to get burned and burnt out, so the idea is to focus on having givers and matchers around you. The beauty of helping matchers is that they tend to feel really motivated to pay it back, and make sure that what goes around comes around.

The givers actually do less of that, but they really focus on paying it forward, allowing whatever you contribute to spread.

As far as the how is concerned, the basic advice is to be a specialist, not a generalist when you give. The givers who try to be all things to all people end up spreading themselves really thin, and it’s not very efficient or energizing to help in hundreds of different ways. Successful givers focus in on one of two ways of helping that they’re uniquely good at, and that they enjoy. Specialized giving is less distracting and exhausting, and they can develop a reputation as somebody who has a distinctive skill set that they’re willing and able to share.

The third part is the when. Failed givers are the people who are willing to drop anything at any time to fulfill a request, whereas successful givers block out time in their calendar to get their own goals accomplished, finish their own work. They have separate windows set aside to be helpful.

So this is a managed process. It is strategic giving. It isn’t just default, all the time, unthinking giving. Nice as that may be, it’s probably not that effective in the long run anyway?
Yes, that’s right. I think if you become too strategic about it, you slip into becoming a taker or a matcher. But yes, I think this is about being thoughtful, about saying a giver wants to have a high return on investment, and that really means giving where you can have the biggest impact.

Now, this doesn’t sound like good news for takers, because if we’re matchers or we’re givers, the people we want to avoid are the takers, presumably?
Yes, that’s right; the matchers are especially motivated to punish takers because they violate a sense of justice and fairness. Smart givers learn over time to be more cautious in dealing with takers, so I do think its bad news for takers. Of course, there are some people who are so talented, or so hard working, that they get away with being takers, but most of us don’t have that luxury. The data suggest anyway that, as the world shifts to become one that’s more about collaboration and service than it has been in the past, it’s going to be harder and harder for takers to succeed.

What would be your advice then to someone coming into the worlds of work, in terms of career networking, and how they get on?
The first thing to do is become a little bit more attuned to other people’s styles. As you encounter givers and matchers, obviously you try to surround yourself with more of those people, because you can trust them to have your best interests at heart. You can also give a little bit more freely without worrying about the consequences.

One way to test the water is to do what the serial entrepreneur Adam Rifkin calls “the five minute favor.” If you’re motivated to give, to be helpful and make a difference—which most people are—you don’t have to be Mother Theresa or Ghandi. In fact, that’s not sustainable for most of us. Instead of worrying about getting sucked into extremely time-consuming acts of helping and giving, you should look for ways to add high value to others, at a low personal cost. If you can add a few more five minute favors to each week, it’s a great way to contribute more value to other people without making a personal sacrifice.

And do you practice this personally?
I strive to, as much as possible. You can’t study these kinds of dynamics without trying to practice a little bit of what you preach.

Do you have a plan that you follow?
I do try to do a lot of chunking — so there are days when I don’t help very many people outside my family, because I’m focused on teaching, writing, research or other activities to which I’ve committed to. There are other days where I’ll set aside time and help as many students as I can, and see what I can do to support my colleagues as well. I find that dividing it up that way is extremely helpful.

Through writing Give and Take, I learned to be a lot clearer about my own priorities: family first, students second, colleagues third, everybody else fourth. When somebody reaches out, I know that I’m going to respond faster when it’s a student than a colleague. That’s why I became a professor — to help and inspire students, not to make a difference for fellow professors.

When somebody reaches out who doesn’t fall into one of those first few categories, I ask myself: is this really the best use of my time, or can I refer you to a book or another person, or a resource that can answer your question better than I can?

There’s no doubt that there are some very selfish people that do get on in life. What sets the alarm bells ringing with you?
There are a couple of sneaky ways that takers manage to fool other people. One is a pattern that I call kissing up, kicking down. Takers are really good fakers when dealing with powerful people, because it’s advantageous for influential people to think that you’re generous. But it’s a lot of work to fake concern for others in all your interactions, so takers tend to let their guard down a little bit with peers and subordinates. If you really want to know somebody’s style, don’t ask their bosses; ask the people who work across from and below them.

Also, takers often will give first, and then make a bigger ask later. A lot of us have learned to have an alarm go off when we just meet somebody, and all of a sudden they’re over-eager to help us. Sometimes, because they’re charming or because they manage to ingratiate, we get fooled by them. That’s something we have to be careful about.

Third, over time, takers give off more of a transactional impression. Initially takers are quite charming, because they know that’s what they need to do to get ahead. But you will find that you only hear from them when they want something.

Are there lessons from this for organizations? Are there things that organizations can do, culturally, or the CEO can do, to try to ensure that a greater percentage of the population play the giving game, rather than the taking game or the matching game?
Any one style used inflexibly is risky. You do have to get smart at adjusting and adapting without losing sight of your values and your character. The evidence suggests that the best thing to do when you encounter a taker, is operate more like a matcher, and it becomes very much tit for tat, if this person gives, then I will give back, but I’m not going to do it without some kind of quid pro quo. But a lot of givers feel really uncomfortable with that and they don’t want to have to be constantly keeping score. One way to navigate this dilemma is instead of asking the taker to help you, ask them to help somebody else. In that way, you’re holding them accountable, but you don’t feel like you’re stepping out of your own value system.

The nice thing is that, if you’re a giver, an ask feels like helping when it’s on behalf of someone else.

So, what’s next for you? What are you working on?
I’m not going to be one of those people who writes 19 sequels on the same topic. I love asking a big question that’s interesting and has both practical significance, and then really trying to tackle it. So my next book will probably approach a different topic. But something I am working on right now is one of the unanswered questions from the book, which is what does it take to turn a taker into a giver?

Can the tiger change its stripes, and what are the conditions that produce those kinds of shifts?

Any early signals or clues so far?
There are a couple of initial patterns that are coming out. The data suggest that it’s very hard to convince people that they should change their values, but they’re a lot more likely to convince themselves. Takers do seem to change a little bit in the giver direction when they are actually advocating for the importance of giving. Rather than asking a taker to think more like a giver, what I would do is get that person to try to convince other people to act like a giver.

You spent time working as a magician? Are there parallels with what takers do?
It was one of my early exposures to psychology. The sleight of hand that magicians do is what takers pull off without anyone ever knowing that it was just a trick.

How did you get interested in magic and do you still practice it?
I was baby-sitting for some kids down the street. They were very hyper, and one day they started doing magic tricks. Somebody had got them a magic set, and I noticed that they actually sat still and listened. So I went home and learned a few tricks, to keep them entertained, and I found that it was a great way, as an introvert, to come out of my shell. Then it snowballed. I don’t do a lot of shows anymore, but at teaching or speaking events I will often get roped into doing a couple of tricks, and I still enjoy it.

It’s a useful party trick to have, and do you still classify yourself as an introvert, or would you see yourself now as an extrovert?
At heart, I’m still an introvert. I definitely prefer a good book to a party most of the time, but I also give hundreds of speeches a year.

How does that fit with being a teacher and giving speeches as a thought leader?
For much of my job, when I’m not writing and doing research, I am on stage, acting more like an extrovert. When I poll my students most of them guess that I’m an extrovert! I’ve been inspired by Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, and also by the research of Brian Little. As an introvert, when I’m on stage, I’m acting out of character. I play the part of an extrovert, and it can be exhausting, but in a way, I’m also doing it because of my character, because I really believe in my message, and I care about sharing these ideas.

It’s out of my normal personality zone, but it’s very much congruent with my values.

So it’s authentic?
Yes. Malcolm Gladwell put it well when he said, “Speaking is not an act of extroversion– it’s a performance, and many performers are hugely introverted.”